Saturday, 16 April 2016

Day 28 - April 12th 2016 - Braunton to Ilfracombe

It was still, cool and sunny as I made my way out of Braunton on an embankment next to the River Caen this morning. There were few people around, I soon only had sheep for company as I passed moored boats at sleepy Velator Quay, a tranquil start to the day. The walking was flat and easy. After the Caen joined the Torridge at Horsey Island I had good views across to places I'd passed through yesterday; Appledore and Northam Burrows. The two jetties I ran past just outside Instow almost seemed close enough to touch.

Suddenly I noticed movement on the path just ahead. There in front of me was an adder, instantly recognisable by it's distinctive black zig-zag markings. The snake was startled when it saw me and flipped over upside-down. After righting itself it stayed fairly still for a few seconds, kindly giving me time to take a few pictures, before slithering off slowly into the grass. It was the finest adder I've ever seen. I'd estimate it was at least 18 inches (45cm) in length, a truly magical encounter.

Soon after that I reached the huge dune system at Braunton Burrows. At first the path was easy to follow, going along a wide straight track that is fenced off on either side. I helped reunite an excited dog with it's worried owner. She told me she'd started her walk with four dogs but had been down to three for quite a while. Soon after leaving the track I lost the official South West Coast Path and ended-up taking an improvised route. After a mile or so making my way through large sand dunes I dropped down onto Saunton Sands Beach and headed towards the hotel, a prominent white structure that I'd been able to see in the far distance when I came around Hartland Point two days earlier. Saunton Sands was a lovely spot, a long wide beach, popular with surfers in a very scenic location. I was delighted to recognise the colourful beach huts from the front cover of my guide book.
After re-joining the correct path in front of the hotel there was more easy walking along the side of Saunton Down. A pretty red butterfly on the path seemed to be playing games with me, repeatedly flying a few yards ahead before waiting for me to catch up. After dropping down to sea-level again I crossed Croyde Beach. I'd been looking forward to seeing Croyde for the first time because my brother likes to bring his young family on holiday here. There was more easy walking up to Baggy Point, this section of the coastal path is popular with holidaymakers staying in Croyde. On the way up I saw the bones of a whale that washed-up on Croyde Beach in 1915.
As I rounded Baggy Point scenic Morte Bay opened up before me. The long golden beach looked great in the sunshine. When I reached Putsborough Sand I dropped down onto the beach. I decided it was pointless religiously sticking to the official path through the dunes. When the tide is out a walk along the beach is a much more sensible option. Woolacombe looked deceptively close but it seemed to take forever to walk the last two miles before I actually arrived. Lea was parked for free on the Esplanade, we enjoyed our lunch with great views. We'd chosen not to meet at our initial choice, Putsborough, when we discovered the only place to park there charges cars £8 each to enter.

After a somewhat late lunch break it was time to move on to ominously named Morte Head. The terrain became more rugged, there were the first proper ups-and-downs I'd seen since the other side of Westward Ho! A bank of fog that had been lingering all day in Barnstaple Bay had finally burnt away, visibility was very good for a while. I could clearly make out the lighthouse and radar dome at Hartland Point. I could also see Clovelly and Lundy, and caught my first glimpse of the Wales coast. At Bull Point there is another lighthouse, unusually only the very top part is whitewashed, the rest of the structure an unattractive shade of grey.
Pressing on I came into Lee, my initial impression was that it is a pretty little seaside village. There were groups of young children having fun in the rock pools. However I soon noticed the boarded-up Lee Bay Hotel that is very prominent. It is a sad sight, apparently having been closed since 2008. Internet research tells me that at the time of writing the hotel is on the market for £6million with planning permission to be redeveloped as a restaurant and housing. Something needs to be done, it looks terrible as it is.
The coast path leaves Lee on a steep, straight country lane with high hedgerows that obscure most of the views. It's a long slog of a climb, but rather than slow down I had a good reason to pick-up the pace. Thunder that had initially seemed quite distant was now much louder and closer. I could see ominous dark clouds approaching from the east. Perhaps I could make it to Ilfracombe 2 miles further on before the storm arrived? However soon after reaching the highest point in fields, having rapidly climbed to 550ft from sea-level, the rain started to pelt down and I threw on my waterproofs as quickly as I could in front of a herd of curious cows.
There was thunder and lightning all around me as I finished the days walking. I saw two spectacular lightning strikes go from cloud to ground over Ilfracombe on my approach. I made my way down the Torr Walk, it was slippery and deserted in the heavy rain. This was not a good time for taking pictures. I followed the footprint markers into Ilfracombe as far as the two unusual conical buildings that house the Landmark Theatre where Lea was waiting in the car park. It could have been worse, there was a large modern Wetherspoons pub just across the road. Within minutes I was drying out while tucking into a delicious steak dinner and enjoying a pint of local ale. With just two days of walking left between here and Minehead I remarked that my legs were still feeling very strong.
Distance Walked Today - 23.19 miles (37.32km)
Cumulative Distance Covered - 625.54 miles (1,006.71km)
A tranquil start to the day, boats and sheep next to the River Caen.
The adder I met on the path at Horsey Island
Making my way through the dunes after losing the path in Braunton Burrows
The hotel and beach huts at Saunton Sands
Looking back over Saunton Sands and Braunton Burrow from Saunton Down, surfers in the water.
The butterfly on the path at Saunton Down
Surfers at Croyde Beach.
Morte Head
The lighthouse at Bull Point, Lundy is on the horizon.
Lee and the boarded-up hotel. Storm clouds gather in the distance.

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